Can you keep your opinion to yourself?

Issue March/April 2017 By Cristina G. "Tina" Shinnick

Clients pay lawyers for their advice, counsel, guidance and their opinion. So, when is it important for a lawyer to not offer an opinion?

Lawyers as leaders and managers are tasked with setting a vision and course for their firm or organization. They are skilled at asking questions and leading discussions. They are good at probing for clarification and summarizing thoughts. They are organized and deadline-driven. But how good are they at facilitating?

Lawyer leaders sometimes find themselves in the role of facilitator, often with their lawyer peers inside their organizations. Managing partners are often in this role and most people might think they are the only ones called upon to facilitate. However, practice group and committee leaders may also find themselves in this unfamiliar territory. And it might actually be a bit uncomfortable for those trained to have an opinion and argue passionately in defense of it.

So, let's consider what facilitating is not then we can explore what it is. Facilitating is not:

  • Entering in a discussion with a pre-conceived notion of the outcome
  • Having a clear, pre-determined idea of where you want to the discussion to end up
  • Leading the discussion with your opinion, supported by facts and/or data
  • Advocating for a specific outcome

Facilitating is a different skill set that requires drawing others into the conversation; listening actively for key points that need follow-up and further probing; guiding the discussion in a productive, helpful and inclusive manner; being completely agnostic about any outcome; checking your ego and your tendency to pre-judge what others might say at the door; and keeping your opinion to yourself.

For example, let's say that you are leading a committee charged with exploring alternative technology tools that will provide greater efficiency and reduce billable time spent on matters, but the cost of these tools is not insignificant. Therefore, the committee needs to make a recommendation to firm management after weighing all of the factors. You believe the firm simply must invest in these tools or risk losing valuable clients. To you, it's a no-brainer. "Spend money to make money," as the saying goes. But, you also know that others on your committee are not of the same mind. At least one of them still dictates to her/his secretary as opposed to drafting documents on their computers. How are you going to get from Point A to Point Z, if Point A is the present and Point Z is full adoption of technology efficiency tools?

One way would be to gather evidence in support of your desired outcome, share that evidence in advance with your committee, prepare a PowerPoint presentation complete with pie-charts and graphs that provide further support for adoption of technology, and line up vendor demos for the committee, assuming, of course, that the committee is in full agreement that the firm must invest in these tools. But how do you know what the committee members think or feel?

If you start the process with your facilitator hat on, you will approach it differently. Your first meeting will be entirely devoted to asking questions, such as:

  • How do people feel about what we have been asked to do?
  • How should we go about the process of gathering data and assessing available tools?
  • What internal information do we need in addition to external information?
  • What's the best way for us to gather and compile that information?
  • Assuming that after we've done all of our assessment work and agree that the firm should invest in one or more efficiency tools, how willing are each of us to lead by example and fully adopt the selected tool?

And, the last thing you should do before ending any meeting is to go around the table and ask each person if they have any more thoughts, opinions or questions.

Handling the process as a facilitator versus leader will yield ancillary benefits, such as participants feeling heard, getting greater buy-in when the outcome is achieved and people being invested in a successful outcome.

Some people think that facilitation is the same as mediation. It is not. Mediation is for conflicts that need resolution; facilitation is working with a group focused on a common problem/issue/desired outcome and making sure that all members of the group participate in the process.

Other examples where facilitation would be useful:

  • Practice Group Leaders needing to write a business development plan for their group
  • Heads of Committees tackling a specific issue in the firm, e.g., associate compensation
  • Law Firm Leaders working on a strategic plan for the coming year

This is not to say that all leadership requires facilitation. To the contrary, law firm leaders are often called upon to direct the firm with vision, clarity, and strategy. The point is that facilitation has its place in law firms, along with leadership, mediation and conflict resolution. Learning to be an effective facilitator can help you unlock creativity that will yield hugely positive results.

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